Updated 2/17/21. Are you someone who gets clogged pores with frequent or occasional breakouts, yet you find that acne products are too harsh and leave your skin feeling tight and dry? Then, when you try to hydrate your skin with a heavier moisturizer, you find that this causes even more bumps and blemishes? I often hear about this issue from my clients, especially from those who are in their 20s and 30s and even some in their 40s. These are people who still experience breakout activity and find it difficult to balance all of their skin’s needs. That’s where I come in. Keep reading to learn 5 ways to hydrate oily skin without causing breakouts.
1. Avoid Using a Harsh, Acne-Focused Cleanser
Many (but not all) acne cleansers are loaded with harsh detergents and strong ingredients designed to dry up breakouts. If you’re someone who only has 1-5 blemishes on your skin at any given time, think about how your acne cleanser is treating your ENTIRE face for breakouts that are only here or there. Drying out the whole face will result in a layer of dead skin cell buildup, which can trap oil and bacteria under the skin, causing more bumps and breakouts.
Instead of harsh acne-focused cleansers, reach for cleansers listed as sulfate-free. This indicates that sodium lauryl (or laureth) sulfate and ammonium lauryl (or laureth) sulfate are missing from the formulation, which is a good thing, considering that these sulfate surfactant ingredients contribute to a drying effect on the skin’s surface. I believe using a gel-based cleanser with breakout-fighting ingredients like salicylic acid is beneficial, but it must be gentle. Check out my recommendations for sulfate-free cleansers.
Secondly, listen to your skin. If the cleanser is sulfate-free yet it still leaves you feeling dry, you’ll have to find a gentler alternative. With that being said, (and this is super important!), make sure to wait no longer than 60 seconds before applying your next product after cleansing. If you leave your skin bare for more than a minute, moisture evaporation will start to occur, and the skin will feel tight regardless of how gentle your cleanser is. You always want to use a cleanser formulated exclusively for your skin type so take my Skin Type Quiz to learn more.
It’s important to understand that cleansing is one of the most important steps of your skincare routine. If your first step is drying, then everything you use afterward (toner, serum, and moisturizer) must do repair work to fix the damage created from washing with a drying, irritating cleanser. Note: If you have post-breakout red, dark marks, these are no longer active blemishes with an infection, so the strategy for treating these is completely different; the focus should be on exfoliation, not drying out the skin with an acne cleanser. Read more here.
2. Use an Alcohol-Free Toner After Cleansing to Give Your Skin a Boost of Hydration
Toners are so misunderstood. In fact, toning is often not seen as an important step in a skincare routine, but I’m here to tell you that it is—especially for oily/combination and dehydration-prone skin. There are many benefits to using a toner after cleansing, and one of them is that it’s a very effective way to hydrate skin. Since your skin still has oil underneath the surface (this is the reason you still get clogged pores and breakouts), your skin doesn’t need extra oil. Instead, it requires water, and toners are a great way to get it.
After washing your face, wipe an alcohol-free toner over the skin and then immediately apply a serum. This will seal in the hydrating benefits from the toner so your skin cells remain plump and moist. Skin cells are like fish and need water to live, so don’t skip this important step. (Note: There is a big difference between dry and dehydrated skin and you really need to know what it is. Read this post.)
3. Give Your Skin a Mini Facial Using a Hydrating Gel Mask
One of the fastest and most effective ways to immediately hydrate oily skin is to give it a 2-step exfoliation and a mask treatment. First, you’ll want to exfoliate the skin to remove dry surface cells. After all, there’s no sense in hydrating cells that are already dead, dry, and ready to hit the road, right? You can apply a gentle acid peel and leave it on for 10 minutes. Be sure to rinse it off thoroughly. Next, apply a layer of a gel mask all over the face. Gel masks are completely oil-free and not only do they provide a soothing effect on the skin due to the cold temperature they naturally retain, but they are formulated to deliver water deep within the skin cells. This will make your skin nice and moist without causing extra breakouts to appear.
4. Use a Treatment Oil to Protect the Skin When Flying on an Airplane or When in Any Dry Climate
I know what you’re thinking. “An oil on my acne-prone skin? No way!” What you need to understand is that all oils are not equal, just as all oils are not pore-clogging. Their purpose is to provide a layer of protection, making sure the hydration in your skin stays put and doesn’t evaporate out. In dry conditions where moisture naturally wants to escape from the skin (through a process called osmosis), using a few drops of a skin oil on top of an appropriate moisturizer (perhaps something oil-free) can act as a sealant to prevent evaporation. Airplanes are the worst for making the skin feel tight and dry, so using an oil can definitely help. (See the experiment I did on a plane to prove just how drying the air is.)
5. Always Use Products For Your Skin Type
While I’m sure you’re someone who tries to stay educated and keep up on the latest and greatest when it comes to skincare, you don’t have to go at it alone. It’s really important that you consult a trusted professional, as they have experience in understanding the true needs of the skin. (Read these common mistakes when determining your skin type.) I can’t tell you how many times my clients have thought their skin was a certain type when in fact it was something completely different. To discover your unique skin type, take my Skin Type Quiz.
You might be surprised that I didn’t list ‘drink a lot of water’ as one of the ways to hydrate oily, acne-prone skin. The truth is that drinking water is the least efficient way to hydrate the skin. Read more about this here.
One last thing. Go easy on heavy skincare products, because you could end up with clogged pores, which could lead to breakouts and bumps. Speaking of pores, here’s my expert tips for cleaning your pores.
Celebrity Esthetician & Skincare Expert
As an esthetician trained in cosmetic chemistry, Renée Rouleau has spent 30 years researching skin, educating her audience, and building an award-winning line of products. Trusted by celebrities, editors, bloggers, and skincare obsessives around the globe, her vast real-world knowledge and constant research are why Marie Claire calls her “the most passionate skin practitioner we know.”